Washington - April 10, 2012
A new database program, scheduled to be implemented this fall will allow for the disabling of cell phones which were reported stolen by their owners. A joint effort between the FCC and major wireless carriers, the program aims to deter the theft and resale of wireless devices. The centralized database would give carriers the information they need to recognize stolen phones and disable them to prevent future usage.
The strategy arose out of several reports of increased smart phone thefts in major cities across the United States. Currently, more than 40% of robberies which occur in New York City involve theft of cell phones, while 38% of robberies in Washington include stolen phones. Criminals who steal the devices then resell them, sometimes to buyers overseas, as a part of sophisticated black market operations.
Contrary to popular belief, a phone can be reactivated by thieves after service has been cancelled by an owner through their wireless carriers or internet providers, depending on the company the owner was subscribed with. Some carriers, such as Verizon and Sprint, do currently block re-activation of stolen phones. But other GSM-based carriers whose phones include interchangeable SIM cards currently do not.
The database will contain UDIDs, or Unique Device Identifiers to identify the stolen phones. By blocking using the UDID of a device, swapping a SIM card will not be enough for reactivation. GSM-based carriers will be rolling out their own database by the end of October, and those with LTE smartphones will also be protected with a database set to go by the end of November 2013.
There are some issues with the plan that have yet to have a solution. For instance, thieves can modify UDIDs, and although many countries have their own databases for stolen phones, the FCC's request for interoperability may not be enough to ensure complete enforcement. There is also no solution for those users who have been able to recover their device following a theft, or for false claims that a device has been stolen.
Education will play a big role in addition to the implementation of the database. For example, users worried about the information on a phone that was stolen will both be urged to protect their device with passwords, as well as be taught about the remote wipe feature on their device and how to use it.
Security organizations also published some tips for cell phone users, which include not leaving phones unattended in public, and recording and keeping a device's information such as UDID and serial number in a safe place in the event of a phone theft.